From the latter half of the Meiji era (1868-1912) to the middle of the Showa era (1926-1989), for little over a 50 year period, rōkyoku (naniwabushi) were enjoyed enthusiastically in every corner of Japan, and were hailed as “the king of public entertainment”. Records played a key role in their popularization.
Since about 1900, visitors to the precincts of Sensou-ji Temple could listen to sounds from phonographs in the phonograph shop. This phonograph was called the "Ediphone", and had a number of rubber tubes directly connected to the device. The end of each tube forked, forming something akin to a stethoscope one would place over both ears and use to listen. During the 40’s of the Meiji era (1907-1912), when rōkyoku passed its golden age, popular stars had their names painted in rubric on sheets and sheets of paper that would flutter in the wind. However, if there were cases in which the voice that could be heard on the phonograph were the genuine person, there were also cases in which an altogether different person imitated the voices of any number of people.
The very first disc recording in Japan was made in 1903 in the Hotel Metropole at Tsukiji. The first rōkyoku recording was made by Aizou Naniwatei. Later, with the surge in popularity of rōkyoku masters Kumoemon Tochuken and Naramaru Yoshida, rōkyoku ushered in a golden age, and many rōkyoku masters made recordings, be they famous or unknown performers.
In contrast to rakugo (comic storytelling) and kodan, (oral story telling) which developed in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, rōkyoku incorporated and comprised a variety of elements including hayariuta (popular song), etc. and was widely popular from Hokkaido to all the way to Kyushu be it in a farm village, a fishing village or an urban area. Before the emergence of radio in the end of the Taisho era, records became the firebrand for rōkyoku 's popularity. Performers who started nationwide tours after they sold records also appeared.
Rōkyoku consists of the fushi, the soliloquy, and the explanation which meant that the story was conveniently subdivided. The first recording was a three minute recording on one side of a 78-rpm record, however, recordings would turn into double-sided records, and then two disc sets, three disc sets, and even four disc sets. If it were a 4 disc set, more than 25 minutes of content could be recorded. Thus, popular performers appeared one after another in the golden age due to the record.
Naniwabushi meikan. ("The Directory of Naniwa-bushi Reciters" Zenkoku naniwabushi shoureikaihen ("Japan Naniwa-bushi Foundation Publication"), 1924, p.1.
Called the "Patriarch of the Rōkyoku Restoration". A robust chanter, who gained popularity especially with his "sandangaeshi" singing technique in which he seems to continue singing with a single breath. "Akogishiden (The Legend of the Faithful Retainers of Ako)" also known by the name of "Chushingura" (“A Treasury of Loyal Retainers”) became his stock and trade. He is considered one of the leading figures representative of the rōkyoku repertoire.
The story of "Akagaki Genzo Tokkuri no Wakare" is set immediately before the raid on Kira Kozukenosuke's estate. Akagaki Genzo, one of the faithful retainers, attempts to bid farewell to his elder brother, yet, because his brother is not present, however, he drinks the saké he brought him in his stead in front of his brother's haori coat and then parts reluctantly. Recorded in 1911.
→Listen to "Akagaki Genzo Tokkuri no Wakare" [Audio source material publicly available on the Internet]
Yamatonojo Yoshida (Naramaru Yoshida II)
Naniwabushi meikan. ("The Directory of Naniwa-bushi Reciters" Zenkoku naniwabushi shoureikaihen ("Japan Naniwa-bushi Foundation Publication"), 1914, p.49.
Called the "Father of Rōkyoku". Popularity was divided between him and Kumoemon. The grace of his fushi intonation and the simplicity of his narration gained him popularity with women and even children. His record sales exceed Kumoemon's.
"Gengo Ootaka", who is selling small bamboo for year-end cleaning in order to find the whereabouts of Kira Kozukenosuke's estate, meets Kikaku Takarai, a master of seventeen-syllable verse, at Ryogokubashi and he expresses the decisive action of the raid in a haikai poem. The geisha, Eikiku of Yamatokoriyama, sings the fushi used in this program. It was turned into a recording under the title, "Naramaru kuzushi", and became hugely popular.
His apprentice, Ichiwaka, became Naramaru III in 1929 and Naramaru II took the name of "Yamatonojo".
→Listen to "Gengo Ootaka" [Audio source material publicly available on the Internet]
Rekoodo ongaku gigeika meikan ("Directory of Musical Record Artists") 1940, rekoodo sekaisha, 1940. p. 273.
Active from the latter half of the Taisho era (1912-1926) until the beginning of the Showa era (1926-1989). The star of the next generation after Kumoemon and Naramaru. He devoted himself to Kumoemon and even took the name Tochuken Kumotayu at one point. Needless to say, he followed Kumoemon's fushi closely.
In "Parting in the Snow at Nanbuzaka", Oishi Kuranosuke attempts to inform Yozenin, the wife of Lord Asano Takuminokami, about the raid on Kira Kozukenosuke's estate, but he takes leave without revealing his real intentions because there was a suspicious maid present.
→Listen to "Nanbuzaka yuki no Wakare" [In-library-only audio material]
He turned the novel of Mokuzen Watanabe "Komatsu Arashi" ("Small Pine Storm") serialized in the Miyako Shinbun (The Capital Newspaper) into a rōkyoku and made it a hit. In a scene depicted in the rōkyoku version, Otoki, a packhorse driver, is stripped of his clothing, doused with water, and beaten after spurning the live-in barmaid of the Hanaya Inn. She is saved by the loyal warrior, Komatsu Ryuzou.
Nipponophone is a label of the Nippon Chikuonki Shokai Company, however, there is still the anecdote that Rakuyu's "Komatsu Arashi" was the biggest seller for that company for a span of ten years.
→Listen to "Komatsu Arashi" [In-library-only audio material]
Originally, a bestselling rōkyoku master of Chushingura tales. Many of the recordings belonging exclusively to Hikoki Record are in that genre. When requested to produce something different, he recorded the rakugo material "Kouya Takao", but it never made it to market. However, the Great Kanto Earthquake occurred and inclined the management of the company to market their warehoused inventory. As soon as they did, it became a big hit. In fact, it was such a hit that the proceeds were enough to construct a whole new company building. After Hikoki Record merged with Nippon Columbia Co., Ltd., Minoru Shinoda occupied an important position in the company. The anecdote still persists that whenever Minoru took to the stage, he would inevitably be requested to perform "Kouya Takao" by the audience, even if he was performing another repertoire, making it almost impossible to anything else.
→Listen to "Kouya Takao" [In-library-only audio material]
Yuriko Haruno I
Naniwabushi meikan. ("The Directory of Naniwa-bushi Reciters" Zenkoku naniwabushi shoureikaihen ("Japan Naniwa-bushi Foundation Publication"), 1924, p.87.
She played an active role as a female authority in Kansai and Kanto from the Taisho era to the beginning of the Showa era. Her grace on stage, physical attractiveness, and charm were second to none in the world of rōkyoku. Aside from her beautiful voice, her fushi delivery, soliloquy, and tone were skillful. She possessed impressive technique.
"Takadanobaba" is the story of the younger days of Horibe Yasube, one of the Faithful Retainers of Ako. Before he was married, Yasube had the family name, Nakayama. In order to defeat the 18 Murakami brothers who were enemies of his uncle, he hastens from Hatchobori all the way to Takadanobaba and then cuts them all down magnificently.
→Listen to "Takadanobaba" [Audio source material publicly available on the Internet]
Rekoodo ongaku gigeika meikan ("Directory of Musical Record Artists") 1940, rekoodo sekaisha, 1940. p. 278.
Yonewaka became a star after once the Showa era began. He enjoyed popularity with Torazo Hirosawa II. His sonorous serene voice lends his fushi singing an arresting appeal. "Sadojowa" is the tale of lovers who go their separate ways and the story of the woman gone mad who is saved by the Venerable Nichiren through Buddhist scripture recitation. There is a freshness in Yonekawa's rendition of the folk song "Sado okesa" and it became his most important work.
→Listen to "Sadojowa" (includes "Sado okesa bushi") [In-library-only audio material]
Torazo Hirosawa II
Rōkyoku nyuumon ("An Introduction to Rōkyoku"), Tsurushobo, 1955, Frontispiece page.
"Mori no Ishimatsu (Sanjikkokudouchu)" is a scene from the long rōkyoku, "Shimizujirochoden" ("The Tale of Boss Shimizujirocho"). This is the tale of Mori no Ishimatsu (a vassal of Boss Shimizujirocho ), who is ordered to pay his respects to the Konpira Shrine in Sanuki by Boss Shimizujirocho, embarks on the Sanjikkokubune (boat) and journeys up the Yodogawa River after he finishes his visit. With its amusing, witty, Edoite repartee this tale has become a staple of rōkyoku. The phrases "Nominee, kuinee ("Eat, drink and be merry"), "Edokko datte ne ("You're Edoites, to the last, you know")", "Kanda no umareyo" ("I was born in Kanda")", "Baka wa sinanakya naoranai" ("Death is the only cure for stupidity"), were all coined in this program and they remain popular to this day. Torazo also featured in film and joined Japan's pantheon of film stars.
→Listen to "Mori no ishimatsu (Sanjikkokudouchu)" [In-library-only audio material]
Asataro, a vassal of Chuji Kunisada, kills his uncle due to a misunderstanding of Chuji, and comes to bring up his young nephew. Chuji also comes to realize his misunderstanding and regrets it while embracing the infant who will not stop crying. This song is a rōkyoku arrangement of the big hit pop song, "Akagi Lullaby", that was originally sung with feeling by Taro Shoji. When the rookie Baio recorded this on disc it became a smash hit. With just this one song, Baio became a rōkyoku master sensation overnight. He sang in a masculine voice that was rhythmical, easy to imitate, easy to understand, and could convey the ardent sorrow of the song so that it welled up in the hearts of his audience.
→Listen to "Akagi no komoriuta" [In-library-only audio material]
Ungetsu Tenchuken II
Rekoodo ongaku gigeika meikan ("Directory of Musical Record Artists") 1940, rekoodo sekaisha, 1940. p. 280.
She was a singer who could completely change her voice from young to old or man to woman and attained fame as the "Seven-colored Voice", becoming the star of the next generation after the original Yuriko Haruno. “Sugino heisouchou no tsuma" depicts the wife of Magoshichi Sugino, who was killed in the Russo-Japanese War, and how she brought up her three sons magnificently according to her husband's will. Based on the success of this big hit, Ungetsu would perform the type of rōkyoku song that would be called the "mom number" (haha-mono) one after the other. Her popularity lasted even after she changed her name to Hideko Itami.
→Listen to “Sugino heisouchou no tsuma" [In-library-only audio material]
Light and gentle voice modulation with influences from kouta (short songs accompanied by the shamisen) and Shinnai-style setsucho (melody) were his specialty. He sold his first record in 1937 when the seriousness of the war intensified. His cheerful melodies, inconceivable in rōkyoku before, lightened the general public's mood and became big hits. Basing his songs on the kodan (oral storytelling) of Kichigoro Kinezumi, he made sequel after sequel.
→Listen to "Shinpan utairikannonkyo" [In-library-only audio material]
He took the world by storm with his bright, big-hearted personal technique. "Haikgura no Santaro" is a work of Iruru Masaoka. It depicts the most blundering, stupid, and careless of Jirocho Shimizu's followers and the riots he causes. Sequels were made one after the other, and they were also broadcast on the radio and even made into films.
→Listen to "Haikgura no Santaro goshugi no maki" [In-library-only audio material]
（Eiichi Nunome, Performing Arts Scholar）